Thursday, February 17, 2011

Company of Liars

In the mood for some light winter reading, I picked up Karen Maitland's medieval mystery entitled Company of Liars, and enjoyed it immensely all the way through. It's the story of a small band of wanderers trying to avoid the plague and also too much scrutiny. They are all "liars" in some way, and as their stories are told or revealed, the reader grows to care about them as their companions do.

There are lots of secrets and lots of stories, and the fun of reading is in discovery, so I won't tell much about what happens, but there are lots of incidental pleasures. Maitland has done her research, and so the details of medieval life on the road are interesting in themselves; I'd never thought about the fact that glass-blowing apprentices had to be more than usually intelligent and disciplined: "get careless with a rod of molten glass and a man could be burned so badly his wounds might never heal. They were quick, eager lads and they needed to be. This was not a profession for dullards."

Even to a twentieth-century person living in a house with central heating, some universal truths appeal, like when one character asserts that "it is only when you get truly warm that you realise how cold you have been."

It's not until p. 314 of this 453-page novel that readers get the first big clue about the "lie" that the first-person narrator, a Camelot, or (according to the glossary at the back) "medieval peddler who also sold or carried news" has been carrying around. The very medieval kind of black or white judgment which puts lies absolutely on the side of evil finally leads to a confrontation at the end of the novel. And the last chapter, in which we learn "the truth about scars"--and a few other things that we might otherwise have believed were supernatural--is unforgettable, and a deeply satisfying end to a sometimes scary story.

14 comments:

FreshHell said...

Wow - that sounds like something I'd enjoy. I'll have to find that one.

Jodie said...

Is the confrontation you're talking about the very end where Narigorm reappears at the door? I hadn't thought of it like that, medieval ideas of justice catching up with Camelot, more like the ending of a horror film where the creepy person always comes back. I like your idea better.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, it's a page-turner.

Jodie, when I said "confrontation" I was thinking of the scene in which Narigorm says to the Camelot "You did it. You lied. I never lie. I only read what is there in the runes. I only tell the truth."
And the Camelot replies "When I first saw you, your master was thrashing you for telling your truth...."
So I can't take credit for thinking of the very end as justice catching up. You're right, though, it does seem very medieval, like the wolf theme.

kittiesx3 said...

That does sound interesting. Should things come to pass that I'm home a lot more, I will need to track that down at the library.

readersguide said...

This does sound good!

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth and ReadersGuide, I can't imagine you wouldn't be as caught up in it as I was, and it's been out for a while, so shouldn't be hard to find at the library.

Vasilly said...

You're the second blogger (Jodie was the first) to give this book a positive review! I think I need to buy this!

Jeanne said...

Vasilly, I liked it a lot and thought it was well-crafted.

Jenners said...

Sounds good! And I know that I, personally, could not have hacked it in the "olden" days (in which I mean any time before indoor plumbing and heating/airconditioning).

Jeanne said...

Jenners, it does make you think about being cold and wet and hungry. They catch and prepare all their own food. Also, the number of cripples in the story make me think that if I'd lived back then, I'd have been lame in the left knee-- always hurting--and the front tooth I knocked out when I was eight would have given me a permanent gap, affecting my speech.

Dreamybee said...

This sounds great-I'll have to find it. Interesting that you mentioned the glass-blower's apprentice having to be smarter than average. I recently read Perfume: The Story of a Murdererby Patrick Suskind, and it mentions the same thing except on the opposite end of the spectrum. Apparently (in Suskind's 18th-century France, anyway) particularly dull or otherwise undesirable children were often favored as apprentices for other treacherous work, where it wouldn't be the end of the world if they came to a horrible end in a vat of chemicals or something.

Jeanne said...

Dreamybee, this is set in a similarly brutal world.

Care said...

I have had this book on my wish list; must move it up the list. The Borders 'sale' is motivating me to put many titles on my buy-now list.

Jeanne said...

Care, it's probably worth buying; I can see myself rereading it eventually.